Cockpit Chronicles: Hitching a ride to Kentucky in Concorde

Occasionally, when pilots are together, the subject eventually will come around to airplanes. Specifically, just what airplane we’d most like to fly.

While I have a rather long list that includes the Ford Tri-Motor and the Spitfire, solidly at the top of the heap lies Concorde. An airplane so special, you’re not even allowed to put ‘the’ in front of its name.

Since there was no possibility of ever flying this airplane at my airline, I knew I had to do the closest thing. Even though my wife and I were very recently hired at our respective airlines, we both agreed that we’d have to pay for a non-revenue (slang for employee reduced-rate) flight in Concorde before it was retired. This was in the mid ’90s and the one-way tickets were still a relatively steep $600 per employee.

At the time, my wife was a flight attendant for United, based in Newark. She was working in the aft galley when a gentleman came back for something. He happened to mention that he worked for British Airways at JFK as the director of Concorde charters.

My wife told him of our plans to purchase a pass on the airplane for a flight to London in the future, just for the experience.

“Don’t do that.” He said. “We have a charter flight from New York to Cincinnati in two weeks. Come along on then. No charge.”

He even extended the offer to the other flight attendants riding that day, but they all passed on the opportunity.

Two weeks later, Linda and I arrived at the Concorde lounge early enough to watch the inbound supersonic jet taxi to the gate. There was a tremendous amount of activity by the staff, with everyone even more frantic than what would be typical for agents eager to ‘turn-around’ an airplane quickly.

We soon discovered what was happening.Princess Diana was arriving on the airplane to sell some dresses for charity in New York. The Princess of Wales was escorted off the jet and down to a waiting car on the ramp, and unfortunately we never actually saw her. But soon afterward, our hero, the director of Concorde charters, came upstairs carrying a large plaque featuring the princess with a warm thank you message written on it given to him by Diana. Needless to say, he was beaming.

While waiting to board, I spotted the co-pilot in the lounge making his way to the gate. I approached him and mentioned that we’d be one of the 14 passengers that day to fly with him to Cincinnati. I explained that I was currently flying the 727 and showed him my ID, hoping that just maybe he would invite me up to the cockpit at some point.

“Let me check with the captain, maybe we can get you the jumpseat.” He said, taking my I.D. and license with him.

As we stepped on board the airplane I took a quick picture of my wife in front of the Concorde sign.

The co-pilot came back to where we were sitting and asked my wife if she would be upset if I rode in the jumpseat. I turned to her with my most buoyant look.

“No, not at all!” She said, as a flight attendant handed her a pre-departure champagne.

Concorde, just like many airplanes of the ’60s and ’70s had a cockpit where the major systems were operated by a flight engineer. At the time, I was an FE on the 727, so I was rather interested in this panel aboard Concorde.

The flight engineer panel on Concorde

The flight engineer showed me the jumpseat, but I was amazed that my perch was well behind the captain. It wouldn’t even be possible to see out the front from that far back, I thought.

As I began to sit down, the FE explained, “No, no, no. The seat slides up forward.”

Sure enough, in what had to be the most unusual cockpit seat, I found my place just behind the captain with the chair locked into place.

The cockpit jumpseat is tucked in just behind the captain seat.

We taxied out with the nose drooped down for better visibility looking forward. As we lined up on runway 31L at JFK, the co-pilot said that this was the lightest he’d ever flown the airplane.

In a scene reminiscent of the original Battlestar Galactica, we blasted down the runway and rotated far sooner than I expected.

The captain reached over and flipped a three inch switch under the glareshield that raised the nose. As the nose sealed into place, I was shocked to see just how bad the visibility was. It was like looking through two sides of a humid greenhouse. It seemed like the first pane of glass, in front of the pilots, was a full ten feet from the retracted windshield that maintained the smooth, needle like appearance of Concorde.

Jumpseating is usually just a method for pilots to get to and from work or where they needed to go. But that day, it was how I confirmed my supposition that the Concorde would be the ultimate airplane to fly.

Climbing through 10,000 feet, I couldn’t hold my enthusiasm any longer. “Guys, you don’t fly an airplane. You fly a rocket!” I gasped.

They explained that even on a lightly loaded airplane they still used ‘reheat’ or what us Yanks call ‘afterburners,’ which essentially injected fuel downstream of the turbine section of the engine for added thrust, producing a glow on the four Olympus engines that could be seen for miles.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t fly supersonic over the continental United States as sonic booms are generally considered annoying for groundlings. Still, flying at .95 Mach, or 95% of the speed of sound may have set a commercial speed record between New York and Cincinnati. (The CVG airport is actually located in northern Kentucky).

Interestingly, six years later the same airplane, G-BOAG, received special permission to fly supersonic over land to set a commercial speed record while flying from New York to Seattle on November 5th, 2003 for its last flight.

It’s fitting that today G-BOAG is now on display at the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle, since Seattle is where I met the exchange student while I was in high school who would later become my wife who landed me this rare experience.

If you have the chance, check out the museum. It’s a must see for any aviation geek.

Special thanks to the director at British Airways who made it all happen for us. I only wish I had remembered his name.

And thanks to Ruthann O’Connor for the photos.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Photo of the day – Approaching Rio

Many of us love the window seat when traveling. Even in cramped coach class, you can feel like you have your own little nook with a place to prop up your tiny airline pillow (in case you don’t fly with a SkyRest like Mike Barish) and a great view of the sky and landscape below. But few of us ever get the best window seat, up in the cockpit, where the view is framed by hundreds of tiny lights and controls. Fortunately own resident pilot Kent Wien shared this nighttime arrival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. See more of his beautiful sky photos here.

See any stellar views on your travels? Add your pictures to the Gadling Flickr pool and you may see one as a future Photo of the Day.

Cockpit Chronicles: Is it time for pilots to ditch the hat?

Call it civil disobedience. Or, for some, it’s a way to express displeasure at management. Maybe the hat just doesn’t work well with their haircut. Whatever the reason, pilots have been ditching their hats lately at airlines across the country.

Some companies have heard enough complaints that they’ve changed their policy, making the hat optional for their pilots.

In fact, effective March 15th, that’s the case at American Airlines. It’s the most significant change to an AA pilot uniform since the Roosevelt era. Which isn’t saying much, since the uniform hasn’t really changed at all since then.

No surveys were taken, although getting rid of hats would surely have been a popular move among most pilots. Doing away with hats started years ago with flight attendants before gaining momentum among pilots.

American Eagle went to the optional hat years ago.
There’s been a movement to bring back hats for men regardless of their profession. But it doesn’t seem to be gaining any traction as far as I can tell.

Internal employee message boards have debated the policy at length. Some pilots say the hats are keeping with a more professional appearance, while others cite examples of being mistaken for a skycap while waiting for a hotel van at the airport.

The hat has proven to be useful during an evacuation, as passengers can recognize who the pilots are as they’re assembling outside the plane. But it doesn’t really serve any other function. We certainly don’t wear them in the cockpit (something that is sure to get a laugh when pilots watch a flying movie where the aviators are all wearing their hats and jackets).

I actually have mixed feelings about the change. I’ve become rather used to wearing my ‘helmet’ over the years, and while it isn’t being done away with entirely-it’s the pilots option whether or not to wear it-I suspect I’ll go for the convenience of leaving it at home. Especially given the long commute ahead of me starting this summer.

Maybe I’ll bring it back for my retirement flight. Or should switch to an entirely different kind of pilot hat like this one.

I’m curious what you think. Are pilot hats a goofy throwback to a bygone era? Or do the hats add a touch of professionalism to the job?


Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Cockpit Chronicles: Six surreal sights seen by pilots

I’ve said it before; the office view from the pointy-end of an airliner is something that can only be matched by an astronaut’s view.

But that’s not to say we don’t get to see a few celestial sights of our own. No, I’m not going to touch on the rumored UFO sightings by pilots, although I promise I’ll keep my camera ready, just in case. I’m talking about the stunning sights, both man-made and natural that we can witness if we take the time to look for them.

Here are examples of six ‘out of this world’ sights as seen from the cockpit:

1) Rocket plumes and Shuttle launches:

On March 5th, while coming back to Boston from Santo Domingo, we saw the rocket plume of the secretive X-37B project. Even though it launched from Orlando, which was at least 600 miles away, we knew right away what it was. The spiraling exhaust left circles in the sky.

We knew to look for this as a possibility as our flight was dispatched with extra fuel, in case we needed to be re-routed well away from the launch area which was noted at the bottom of our flight plan.

The first sign of the rocket appeared as a trail of exhaust that began to swing off into a contorted lasso. The new moon, less than 24 hours old, presented itself in just the right spot amongst the rocket blast. Of course I had to pull out the camera.

%Gallery-118861%Occasionally, a Shuttle launch can be spotted as well. Back in the 727 days, before carrying a camera everywhere I flew, I saw a Space Shuttle launch while flying from San Juan to Tampa.

Passengers can get lucky as well, as seen in this video that caught the ascent of the Space Shuttle Discovery:

2) Noctilucent Clouds

Another rare natural event, which some speculate is actually enhanced by rocket and shuttle exhaust plumes, are noctilucent clouds.

The conditions have to be just right in order to witness these clouds that live at 300,000 feet, (80 to 85 kilometers) an altitude which seems impossible, considering the lack of atmosphere, for a cloud to exist.

They’re most commonly seen during a two month period that straddles the summer solstice. Furthermore, most sightings occur between 50 and 70 degrees latitude; perfect if you live north of New York, Madrid or Beijing and south of Barrow, Alaska.

Finally, as if to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to catch sight of these clouds, they’re only visible for an hour or two before sunrise or for a while after sunset. The reflecting sun illuminates the clouds from below, lighting them up in the dark sky.

I flew across the Atlantic at night, during the perfect time to witness these clouds, for eight years before finally sighting them. Two weeks before snapping these pictures, I had seen a wisp of a cloud that I probably wouldn’t have given any thought to.

But a British Airways pilot explained the clouds to a few curious pilots over our air-to-air frequency that’s often used to share ride information or to collect an email address of a passing flight if an especially good photo is taken.

He spelled the cloud to a pilot, who asked again for the name. N-O-C-T-I-L-U-C-E-N-T.

I vowed to look that up when we landed.

Less than two weeks later, the captain and I dimmed the lights (a time-consuming task involving 30 knobs that will be the subject of a future Cockpit Chronicles video) so we could get a better look at what appeared to be the Northern Lights.

They were spectacular. But there was one thing that didn’t seem quite right. They weren’t moving at all. Typically the Aurora Borealis glow and change shapes every five seconds or so.

After a few minutes I mentioned noctilucent clouds to Mark, the captain. The clouds lit up the arctic sky, although it was two to three a.m. over this part of the Atlantic. The sun wouldn’t be up for a few hours.

Initially I was disappointed that I only had a wide angle lens with me, but it turned out to be just the right look. I think it ranks as my favorite shot ever.

3) Satellites

I have to confess. I never knew it was possible to see satellites with the naked eye when I was a new pilot flying in Alaska. “Look at that traffic.” I said to the captain.

But soon, it became obvious that this ‘traffic’ was missing the rotating beacon or nav-lights typical of an airplane. And it was traveling too fast for its size.

Space shuttle floating away from the International Space Station last week.Jerry Lodriguss at Astropix

After that, I made it a practice to look for satellites when the conversation in the cockpit died off. Again, after dimming the cockpit lights, it was possible to see north-south satellites while flying over the interior of Alaska. I’ve since seen them going in other directions while flying in the jet. Typically, however they’re best seen between one and three hours after sunset, or before sunrise. Just like the noctilucent clouds, the reflecting sun lights them up well.

It’s possible to track the largest of these kind of objects, the International Space Station, and it’s really worth marking down the times it will pass overhead your area for a look. Set your alarm and check it out yourself. Maybe you’ll catch smaller satellite as well while looking. There’s even a good iPhone or Android app that I’ve been using while away from the computer and you want to know when the next satellite, space station or shuttle will pass overhead.

4) Northern Lights

While not exclusively spotted from aircraft, there’s no better time to see the the Northern Lights than while you’re flying at night, away from the bright lights of a city with a clear view to the north. I’ve caught them as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska and as far south as Spokane, Washington (which were the brightest, surprisingly).

If you’re on a night flight across the Atlantic and you just happen to be sitting on the left side of the airplane while traveling east, be sure to open your window shade once or twice to see if you can see anything glowing off in the distance. Very rarely will a pilot announce anything about the Aurora Borealis on these flights, since we presume that most passengers would rather not be disturbed. (See poll below).

5) Meteors and comets

Meteors are probably just as easy to see from the ground, but when you’re in an airplane for hours at a time, with no buildings or lights to obscure your view, it’s far more likely that you’ll see more meteors than those stuck on the ground (a.k.a. groundlings). Usually just one pilot will see the meteor, saying something along the lines of, “Aww, you just missed a bright one there” to the other pilot. If the light show continues, someone might mention it on the air-to-air frequency. The airwaves were lit up years ago when the Hale-Bopp comet first appeared. And just as in the noctilucent example, someone on the air knew all about the comet and proceeded to tell us exactly what we were looking at.

6) Static discharges or St. Elmo’s Fire

Finally, I thought I’d round out our collection of surreal sights with a video taken on one of my flights of a static buildup, sometimes referred to as St. Elmo’s fire, that we occasionally see when flying in the vicinity of thunderstorms.

Wikipedia has a full explanation of what causes this.

With the advent of the new dimming window shades on the 787, passengers are apt to see more of this type of show in the future. All it takes is a slight glow coming through a dimmed window and passengers will hopefully want to investigate by brightening up their shade. Perhaps they’ll get to see what we so often take for granted.


Photos by Kent Wien, Jerry Lodriguss and Aresauburn.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Gadling TV’s Travel Talk 003: Black Boxes, Body Scanners, Vegas, Wedding Bells, & Sushi done right!

Gadling TV’s Travel Talk, episode 3 – Click above to watch video after the jump

We’re back! And this time we’ve brought you a show straight from the Vegas strip.

In this week’s episode – we discuss a new ban on Indian rail rooftop travel, monitoring pilot’s conversations in the cockpit, where the first body scanners will appear in the United States, and a little history behind America’s favorite playground.

Bruce has packing tips for one of the most remote destinations in the West; Aaron will show you the right way to prepare sushi, and only one of us ends up getting married in Vegas; stay tuned to find out who…

If you have any questions or comments about Travel Talk, you can email us at talk AT gadling DOT com.

Subscribe via iTunes:
[iTunes] Subscribe to the Show directly in iTunes (M4V).
[RSS M4V] Add the Travel Talk feed (M4V) to your RSS aggregator and have it delivered automatically.

Vegas Adventure Weddings (Vegas Chapel)
Elvis In A Flash (Chapel Priest)

Chaiyya Chaiyya (Bollywood Train Music Video)
Dubai Aquarium Leak

Hosts: Stephen Greenwood, Aaron Murphy-Crews, Drew Mylrea
Special guest: Bruce!, Onja, & Elvis Presley.

Produced, Edited, and Directed by: Stephen Greenwood, Aaron Murphy-Crews, Drew Mylrea
Special thanks: Vegas Adventure Weddings, Brad Collin (as Elvis Presley), Virgin America & the Fly Girls.

Music by:
Electric Touch
“Sounds from the Underground”
courtesy of musicalley

Arlin Godwin
“Boy Seventeen”
courtesy of musicalley

Poll of the Week!